I first learned about this book during my honours year in 2014. One of my classmates was working on a translation of this book, which at that time hadn’t had an official English translation released. She gave a presentation where she talked about the book and a little about the political history surrounding it, and I was like, “Wow, I have to read that someday!”
It’s taken me a number of years, but finally I’ve got there. And even better, I’ve really enjoyed my time with this book. I think I’d best describe it as a decidedly contemplative read: it devotes a lot of time to describing things like the smells and the tastes of Indonesian food, the atmospheres of Paris and Jakarta, and the tension between different groups of Indonesians, particularly the two camps in Paris (those allied to the New Order dictatorship, and those who fled in fear from it). Another strong thread running through the novel is love – romantic love, familial love, platonic love – with so much of the book spent showcasing the myriad close relationships the different characters have in their lives.
The story begins with Dimas Suryo, a journalist who was abroad covering a conference in Santiago when the 1965 carnage began, with the government slaughtering suspected leftists. Unable to return to Jakarta, he and a number of other exiles in the same position find their way to Paris. There they establish new lives for themselves, centred around running the Tanah Air Restaurant, and Dimas marries a gorgeous Frenchwoman (Vivienne) and has a gorgeous daughter (Lintang), and even after his divorce the three maintain a close bond. However, despite the life he’s caved out for himself in Paris, he still longs to “go home”, even if only to be buried there.
There are other perspective characters, but the second main character is Lintang. Born and raised in Paris, she decides to take a trip to Indonesia when her film professor rejects her proposal to make a documentary about Algerian immigrants in France, and tells her he wants to see a film where she explores her own roots. Lintang’s never considered visiting Indonesia before, because with her father being a proscribed undesirable she presumes she’d never be granted a visa. However, with the help of her boyfriend Narayana – who belongs to the “allied to the New Order regime” part of Paris’s Indonesian community – she is able to get the necessary visa and travel to Jakarta for the first time. There she meets all the relatives and family friends who she and her uncles have only been able to keep in touch with from afar, and she gets involved with a group of young activists working to bring down the dictator Soeharto – and one activist in particular, the dashing Alam.
Maybe it’s not a perfect book; it’s not the kind of novel I’ve been excited to pick up and start reading each day, even though I’ve enjoyed it every time I have picked it up. It had a couple of weird quirks, like having to describe every major character’s breathtaking attractiveness. The ending also feels like it could have been filled out a little more. But overall, I found it such a powerful story about dictatorship and exile, about the longing for home, about the bonds between people, about history and the way it can be twisted or forgotten to serve the interests of the powerful.